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A Look Back on the History of Brick Buildings in New York

These days, dreaming of transforming your home into one of the old residential buildings in New York City is incredibly easy.

For example, if you want your space to look like a nineteenth-century apartment in Manhattan or Brooklyn, you can always adorn the walls with faux brick wall panels. Usually made of medium-density fiberboard, they are lightweight and easy to install. Depending on the quality, they can look even more seamless than a wallpaper version.

But have you ever thought about how bricks ended up in the United States and New York City, no less? To appreciate this architectural style that helped define the Big Apple, let’s retrace some steps.

It Begins with the Egyptians—and the Romans

The history of brickmaking goes way back to the ancient civilizations, particularly during the time of the Early Egyptians. Around 7,000 BC, these people were already making the material from the traditional method of using mud or gathering clay, forming them into brick sizes, and then sun drying them until they hardened.

While this technique worked, it was the Romans, who later conquered Egypt, that perfected the manufacturing process. Using the kiln they brought with them, they started baking the bricks. The heat allowed the material to harden well that it became more durable.

Moreover, the process seemed to improve the bricks’ thermal mass. This way, they could keep the warmth during winters and make the space feel cooler in the summer.

Later on, the Roman Empire expanded until it arrived in Europe, particularly in England. Here, they introduced more than the baths and more sophisticated plumbing. The Romans also constructed buildings and homes made of bricks.

These bricks came from the Flemish, although the country eventually produced their own, especially when both Dutch and Flemish craftsmen settled in England. This migration revitalized the industry that declined when the Romans disappeared.

Arriving in the United States

The United States, especially the urban areas, that people know today, is completely different, if not opposite, than it used to be in the old days. When the Europeans arrived in the country, they built houses made of wood. This goes to properties that populated the city of New York.

The reason is simple: trees were abundant, so they were easy to find and extremely cheap to acquire. This proved beneficial when European immigrants began arriving on Ellis Island and settled in New Amsterdam. Wood allowed landlords and homeowners to build structures fast to accommodate the rising population.

Then came the Great Fire of 1835, which destroyed over 500 New York buildings in more than 15 city blocks and almost made the booming economic district disappear. Although many factors caused the fire, including the lack of enough water resources, one of the primary reasons for the spread was the wooden buildings.

air conditioning units on a building

Because of this tragic event (and a few more similar incidents), the city of New York updated the building code to focus more on using hardier materials. Fortunately, the Europeans brought with them the knowledge and even some supply of bricks. For this reason, commercial and residential buildings began using them as well as stone.

In fact, they loved bricks so much New Yorkers used them in other places. They paved the road with it, built water mains, and improved sewage conduits. Overall, from 1790 to 1910, the city might have laid at between 28 and 56 billion bricks, according to the Gotham Center for New York City History.

Bricks also allowed people in New York to live more comfortably. As mentioned, these materials possess an excellent thermal mass. In the state, where temperatures can drop to just a little above freezing on most days, a brick home feels warm and cozy.

The Decline of Brick Buildings

If the nineteenth century saw the rapid growth of brick use in cities like New York, the twentieth century ushered its decline in the United States. For one, bricks have become more expensive to both buy and install. It is easier and cheaper to use steel, for example.

Second, building codes no longer specify bricks as the main material. Third, only a few manufacturers are creating bricks here. According to some data, their number hardly crosses 40. The United States also isn’t one of the biggest producers of bricks. That recognition goes to China, Spain, and India, based on World Atlas.

Indeed, the more modern buildings and apartments in New York, those of which that sport energy-efficient double-glazed windows and glass, have overshadowed the brick structures that dominated nineteenth-century architecture.

Fortunately, those that existed before are still around, so newer-generation Americans can appreciate them, and homeowners can get inspiration from the design for their space.

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